Brain development in children and adolescents is something we continue to learn about. But we know that what we might call ‘input’ – the experiences children and teens have each day – creates learning and new neural pathways. That includes virtual and online experiences, too. Since COVID-19 has changed the way we work, learn, and socialise, what are the effects on the developing brain of all this screen time?
For younger children, medical experts have been consistent for some time now in saying that children under 18 months should have no screen time except for video calls (such as with a grandparent). Children between 2-5 years should only have a maximum of one hour a day. And ideally watching something with an adult who can talk to them about it to boost language development.
For older kids and teenagers, the guidelines are less clear. Not all screen time is equal: interacting with an educational game isn’t the same as watching a violent movie, obviously. Watching a how-to video on YouTube together with your child as part of your new sport or hobby, is different to zoning out with a puzzle game during a conversation.
However, we do know there are negative effects associated with too much screen time. These include the ones many of us know about, such as sleep disturbance and lack of physical activity. And less obvious examples such as a potential decline in critical thinking skills. It’s worth noting these problems can be just as significant for adults as for children and teenagers.
Happily, there are some simple things you can do, starting today (or perhaps tonight), to restore some balance. Be aware that as well as setting boundaries for your children, you’ll need self-discipline too. Don’t be too hard on yourself and give up if you can’t achieve an ideal mix of activities straight away. It’s about keeping long-term goals in mind and working as a team.
- Get everyone to understand the importance of no screen light within a couple of hours before sleeping.
Reduce opportunities for screen time in bedrooms by having a rule that devices are not kept in those areas, especially at night. This is tricky when you have a child who needs to use their computer to do homework and assignments, but at least you can keep phones and tablets out of bedrooms. Rather than leaving everyone to their own devices – literally – pop in now and then to make sure they’re haven’t switched from textbooks to TikTok. If kids say they can’t sleep or study without music, you could try going old-school with a radio or CD player (if you can find one)!
- Set family limits and create screen-free zones (yes, even your favourite streaming services and the TV).
It’s best if you have a rule like this right from when kids are young, but if not, agree on when you’re all committed to switching off. This is particularly important when allowing screens would mean lack of communication, such as during family meals and driving short distances. Encourage conversation instead of everyone being absorbed in their own electronic world.
- If kids are having trouble regulating their own screen time, negotiate access to devices in return for doing things like chores and homework.
Use this approach sparingly, as the focus should be on relationships and supporting and guiding your child’s or teenager’s development, not relying on screen time as a bargaining chip. Likewise, it’s a good idea not to make removal of devices your first option. If the issue relates to continuing problems with screen or internet use, such as length of time or not sticking to rules about appropriate use, removal should only occur for a brief time and not be used as a long-term solution.
- Teach discretion and evaluation as part of your regular family conversations.
Encourage open discussion rather than laying down unrealistic limits. This is also a way of checking what information and content your children or teenagers are looking at and helping to sift and sort the useful from the useless. Teach kids and teenagers to learn to identify sites and posts or content that are illegal, pornographic, dubious, bullying (or even all the above) and agree on what actions will be taken, when and by whom. And lead by example – if you’re downloading pirated copies of music and movies or getting into unpleasant conversations online, you’ll have a hard time convincing them to stick to the rules.
- Look for opportunities to increase physical activity. It doesn’t have to be a gym subscription or a marathon.
Just going for an evening walk is a good start. Have you been to the local park lately? (It’s not just for little kids.) What about trying something new like rock-climbing, sailing or flying a kite? Have some interesting real-life experiences that go beyond what’s offered by a screen.
- Be enthusiastic about the positives to keep the conversation open.
While some parents are struggling with their own screen over-use, others have the opposite problem. If you feel (or appear to be) completely anti-technology, you’ll find it hard to have respectful communication about the issues. Ask your kids to educate you about what’s new and have them show you how to download new apps, get updates and other cyber-goodies.
You may find some of these strategies easier or harder than others. If you’re having frequent arguments over technology use, it may be time to get some extra positive parenting support to help you refine your approach and keep track of what works.